was invented in Switzerland by Albert Hofmann, a researcher for Sandoz
pharmaceuticals. It did not spontaneously appear among the youth of the
Western world as a gift from the God of Gettin High. The CIA was
on to acid long before the flower children.
So, for that matter, were upstanding citizens like Time-Life magnate Henry
Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, who openly sang the praises of their
magical mystery tours during the early sixties. Henry, a staunch conservative
with close connections to the CIA, once dropped acid on the golf course
and then claimed he had enjoyed a little chat with God.
While the cognoscenti had the benefit of tuned-in physicians, other psychedelic
pioneers took their first trips as part of CIA-controlled research studies.
At least one person committed suicide after becoming an unwitting subject
of a CIA LSD test, crashing through a highstory plate-glass window in
a New York hotel as his Agency guardian watched. (Or perhaps the guardian
did more than watch. In June 1994 the victims family had his thirty-year-old
corpse exhumed to check for signs that he may have been thrown out that
window.) Numerous others lost their grip on reality.
MK-ULTRA was the code name the CIA used for its program directed at gaining
control over human behavior through covert use of chemical and biological
materials, as proposed by Richard Helms. The name itself was a variation
on ULTRA, the U.S. intelligence program behind Nazi lines in World War
11, of which the CIA's veteran spies were justly proud.
Helms later became CIA director and gained a measure of notoriety for
his 'Watergate "lying to Congress" conviction and a touch of
immortality in Thomas Powers's aptly named biography, The Man Who Kept
the Secrets. Helms founded the MK-ULTRA program and justified its
notably unethical aspects with the rationale, We are not Boy Scouts.
At the time, the spook scientists suspected that LSD had the potential
to reprogram the human personality. In retrospect, they were probably
right-Timothy Leary spoke in similar terms, though he saw unlimited potential
for self-improvement in this reprogramming. The CIA and the
military simply couldn't figure out how to harness the drug's power. Thank
goodness. Their idea was not to open the doors of perception
but to convert otherwise free human beings into automatons.
We must remember to thank the CIA and the army for LSD,
spoke no less an authority figure on matters psychedelic than John Lennon.
They invented LSD to control people and what it did was give us
Or did it? The acid-tripping intersection between the CIA and the counterculture
is one of the areas where the on-the-record facts about MK-ULTRA meld
into the foggy region of conspiracy theory. It has been suggested, even
by prominent participants in the counterculture, that with LSD the CIA
found the ultimate weapon against the youth movement.
Officially, the MK-ULTRA program ran from 1953 to 1964, at which time
it was renamed MK-SEARCH and continued until 1973. However, U.S. intelligence
and military operations with the same purpose had been ongoing at least
since World War 11 and likely chugged ahead for many years after MK- publicly
stated conclusion. MK-ULTRA encompassed an undetermined number of bizarre
and often grotesque experiments. In one, psychiatrist Ewen Cameron received
CIA funding to test a procedure he called depatterning. This
technique, Cameron explained when he applied for his CIA grant (through
a front group called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology),
involved the breaking down of ongoing patterns of the patients
behavior by means of particularly intensive elec- in addition to LSD.
Some of his subjects suffered brain damage and other debilitations. One
sued the government and won an out-of-court settlement in 1988.
Then there was operation Midnight
Climax, in which prostitutes lured unsuspecting johns to a CIA
bordello in San Francisco. There they slipped their clients an LSD mickey
while Agency researchers savored the scientific action from
behind a two-way mirror, a pitcher of martinis at the ready.
Author John Marks, whose The
Search for the Manchurian Candidate is one of the most thoroughgoing
volumes yet assembled on U.S. government mind-control research, readily
admits that all of his source material comprised but ten boxes of documentsbut
those took him a year to comprehend despite the aid of a research staff.
Marks writes that he sought access to records of a branch of the CIA's
Directorate of Science and Technology, the Office of Research and Development
(ORD), which took over behavioral (i.e., mind control) research after
MK-ULTRA's staff dispersed.
Marks was told that ORD's files contained 130 boxes of documents relating
to behavioral research. Even if they were all released, their sheer bulk
is sufficient to fend off even the most dedicatedor obsessedinvestigator.
To generate such an intimidating volume of paper must have taken considerable
time and effort. Yet curiously, the CIA has always claimed that its attempts
to create real-life incarnations of Richard Condon's unfortunate protagonist
Raymond Shawthe hypnotically programmed assassin of The Manchurian
Candidatewere a complete bust.
If their demurrals are to be trusted, then this particular program constitutes
one of the least cost-effective deployments of taxpayer dollars in the
history of the U.S. government, which is rife with non-cost-effective
The CIAs most effective line of defense against exposure of their
mind-control operations (or any of their operations, for that matter)
has always been self-effacement. The agency portrays its agents as incompetent
stooges, encouraging the public to laugh at their wacky attempts to formulate
cancer potions and knock off foreign leaders.
Under this cover story, MK-ULTR's research team was nothing but
a bunch of ineffectual eccentrics. We are sufficiently ineffective
so our findings can be published, quipped one MK-ULTRA consultant.
Despite the findings of a Senate committee headed by Ted Kennedy that
U.S. mind-control research was a big silly failure, and even though Markswhose
approach is fairly conservativeacknowledges that he found no record
to prove it, the project may have indeed succeeded.
I cannot be positive that they never found a technique to control
people, Marks writes, despite my definite bias in favor of
the idea that the human spirit defeated the manipulators.
A sunny view of human nature, that. And indeed a consoling one. But the
human spirit, history sadly proves, is far from indomitable. The clandestine
researchers explored every possible means of manipulating the human mind.
The CIAs experiments with LSD are the most famous MK-ULTRA undertakings,
but acid was not even the most potent drug investigated by intelligence
and military agencies. Nor did they limit their inquiries to drugs. Hypnosis,
electronic brain implants, microwave transmissions, and parapsychology
also received intense scrutiny. Marks, Kennedy, and many others apparently
believe that the U.S. government failed where alltoo-many far less sophisticated
operationsfrom the Moonies to Scientology to ESThave scored
resounding triumphs. Brainwashing is commonplace among cults,
but not with the multimillion-dollar resources of the United States government's
military and intelligence operations?
For that matter, the (supposed) impetus for the program was the reported
success of communist countries in brainwashing. The word itself
originally applied to several soldiers who'd fought in the Korean War
who exhibited strange behavior and had large blank spots in their memoriesparticularly
when it came to their travels through regions of Manchuria. Those incidents
were the inspiration for Condon's novel, in which a group of American
soldiers are hypnotically brainwashed by the Korean and Chinese communists
and one is programmed to kill a presidential candidate.
Interestingly, the belief that ones psyche is being invaded by radio
transmissions or electrical implants is considered a symptom of paranoid
schizophrenia. But there is no doubt that the CIA contemplated using those
methods and carried out such experiments on animals, and the way these
things go it would require the willful naivete of, say, a Senate subcommittee
to maintain that they stopped there. Even Marks, who exercises the journalistic
wisdom to stick only to what he can back up with hard documentation, readily
acknowledges that the clandestine researchers probably planted
electrodes in the brains of men. Marks points out that the electrode experiments
went far beyond giving monkeys orgasms, one of the researchers'
The ultimate goal of mind control would have been to produce a Manchurian
Candidate assassin, an agent who didn't know he (or she) was an agentbrainwashed
and programmed to carry out that most sensitive of missions. Whether the
programs accomplishments reached that peak will probably never be
public knowledge. So we are left to guess whether certain humans have
been programmed to kill. In 1967, Luis Castillo, a Puerto
Rican arrested in the Philippines for planning to bump off Ferdinand Marcos,
claimed (while in a hypnotic trance) that he had been implanted with a
posthypnotic suggestion to carry out the assassination. Sirhan Sirhan,
convicted as the assassin of Robert F Kennedy, showed unmistakable symptoms
of hypnosis. A psychiatrist testifying in Sirhan's defense said that the
accused assassin was in a trance when he shot Kennedy, albeit a self-induced
one. Author Robert Kaiser echoed that doctors conclusions in his
book RFK Must Die! Others, of course, have offered darker conjectures
regarding the origins of Sirhans symptoms.
James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King, also had
a known fascination with hypnosis, and, more recently, British lawyer
Fenton Bressler has assembled circumstantial evidence to support a theory
that Mark David Chapman, slayer of John Lennon, was subject to CIA mind
control. Way back in 1967, a book titled Were We Controlled?, whose
unknown author used the pseudonym Lincoln Lawrence, stated that both Lee
Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby were under mind control of some kind. The
book may have had at least a trace of validity: Something in the book
convinced Oswalds mother that the author was personally acquainted
with her son.
Did MK-ULTRA spin off a wave of history-altering assassinationsit
whelp a brood of hypnoprogrammed killers? The definitive answer to that
question will certainly never reach the public. We are left, with John
Marks, to hope on faith alone that it did not, but always with the uneasy
knowledge that it could have.
Perhaps not through assassinations, and perhaps not even intentionally,
MK-ULTRA definitely altered a generation. John Lennon was far from the
only sixties acid-hero to make the connection between the mood of the
streets and the secret CIA labs. A surprising number of counterculture
veterans endorsed the notion that the CIA disseminated street acid en
masse to deflate the political potency of the youth rebellion, write
Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain in Acid Dreams, their chronicle of
both the clandestine
and countercultural sides of the LSD revolution.
By magnifying the impulse toward revolutionism out of context, acid
sped up the process by which the Movement became unglued, the authors
continue. The use of LSD among young people in the U.S. reached
a peak in the late 1960s, shortly after the CIA initiated a series of
covert operations designed to disrupt, discredit, and neutralize the New
Left. Was this merely a historical coincidence, or did the Agency actually
take steps to promote the illicit acid trade?
The tale of Ronald Stark, told by Lee and Shlain, may provide the connection
between the CIA and the Left. Stark was a leading distributor of LSD in
the late 1960s-the same time acid use was at its heaviest-and apparently
a CIA operative. The Agency has never admitted this, but an Italian judge
deciding in 1979 whether to try Stark for armed banditry in
relation to Stark's many contacts with terrorists (among other things,
Stark accurately predicted the assassination of Aldo Moro) released the
drug dealer after finding an impressive series of scrupulously enumerated
proofs that Stark had worked for the CIA from 1960 onward.
It could have been, mused Tim Scully, the chief of Starks
major LSD-brewing outfit (a group of idealistic radicals called the Brotherhood
who grew to feel exploited by Stark), that he was employed by an
American intelligence agency that wanted to see more psychedelic drugs
on the street. But Lee and Shlain leave open the possibility that
Stark may have been simply one of the world's most ingenious con artistsa
possibility acknowledged by most everyone to come in contact with Stark.
The CIA's original acid dream was that LSD would open the
mind to suggestion, but they found the drug too potent to manage. Sometime
around 1973, right before MK-ULTRA founder and, by then, CIA director
Richard Helms hung up his trenchcoat and stepped down from the CIAs
top post, he ordered the majority of secret MK-ULTRA documents destroyed
due to a burgeoning paper problem. Among the eradicated material,
Lee and Shlain report, were all existing copies of a classified
CIA manual titled LSD: Some UnPsycbedelic Implications.
There exists today no on-paper evidence (that anyone has yet uncovered)
that MK-ULTRA was the progenitor of either a conspiracy to unleash remote-controlled
lethal human robots or to emasculate an entire generation by oversaturating
it with a mind-frying drug. But MK-ULTRA was very real and the danger
of a secret government program to control the thoughts of its citizens,
even just a few of them at a time, needs no elaboration.